Friday, September 11, 2009

New York City Democratic Primary Endorsements: September 15th Primary

This has been a painful year to watch in New York politics. Between the Kennedy/Gillibrand appointment fiasco, the travesties at the New York State Senate, and the barrage of scandals at the City Council, this year has done much to discredit New York public officials at all levels. Fortunately, the 2009 elections will allow some new blood to move into office. These people might shake things up, and begin repairing the train wreck that is New York governance. Having canvassed a number of neighborhoods, watched debates, and spoken to a number of people inside and outside the following races, I am prepared to endorse a set of candidates for the September 15th Democratic Primary.

Not everyone who reads this is a registered Democratic voter in New York, but please pass this on to friends, family, neighbors and roommates who are. Local elections are hard to pay attention to- the issues may seem provincial, the differences between candidates less than seismic, and media coverage scant. However, I make these endorsements with the confidence of having measured the people and their districts in person. I am only one person, but unlike unions, newspapers and other interest groups, you can be rest assured that these decisions were made on one basis- who is the progressive who can best represent his or her constituency. Any affiliation I have with any of these candidates began only after properly sizing up the field, and if I have respect for one of their opponents, I will so indicate.

I have listed the neighborhoods corresponding to each district.
The races are listed in order of importance to me. I am not addressing the Democratic Mayoral Primary, as Bill Thompson will win easily. More on the general election between him and Mayor Bloomberg to come at a later date.

Norman Siegel- New York City Public Advocate: All registered New York Democrats can vote in this election.
This is the race I am most passionate about this cycle. The Public Advocate position, created sixteen years ago, seems almost tailored to Norman Siegel, who has spent his career fighting for civil rights and free speech. You read his bio here: . This is the only political office Siegel has ever run for, and would ever run for. The Public Advocate is a watchdog office, designed to serve as a bulwark against corruption and shortcomings by the Mayor and City Council. Events of the last eight years, like the corrupt Yankee Stadium deal or City Council slush fund, underscore the need for a strong and effective fighter in this position.
Siegel’s opponents, former Public Advocate Mark Green, Councilperson Bill DeBlasio and Councilperson Eric Gioia, all have strong resumes as reformers. However, each also nakedly betrays their ambitions for higher office. Green has lost almost every race conceivable in New York politics, and should he win this race, will be running for Mayor in four years. DeBlasio was running for Brooklyn Borough President before switching to a race without an incumbent. Now, there is nothing wrong with ambition in politics. But the Public Advocate should be someone who is ready to stand up to the Mayor or City Council when the cause is right, not just politically popular. Incumbent Betsy Gotbaum tried to focus on children’s hunger, which is great, but politically easy.
We need a public advocate who is not afraid to go after corrupt politicians and local party bosses, regardless of political affiliation, ideology, or popularity. We need a public advocate who will fight for the rights of the homeless, stand up to police brutality when it occurs, and investigate conditions at Rikers Island. We need a public advocate who will stand up for poor and disempowered people, even if they won’t deliver votes for him during the next election cycle. Siegel’s opponents are on the right side of most issues, but when the going gets politically unpopular, they will choose their careers first, and the people second. Norman will never have any trouble making that choice. That is why I support him for Public Advocate.

Swaranjit Singh
- City Council
Queens (23rd Council District): Hollis Hills, Queens Village, Little Neck, Douglaston, Bayside, Bellerose, Floral Park, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park, Hollis, Hollis Park Gardens, Holliswood, Fresh Meadows
Swaranjit Singh is a personality and a half, and he would bring a much needed perspective to the City Council. This winter I was looking at fundraising numbers (I know, I’m that cool), and found that Mr. Singh, a political unknown, had suddenly raised more than any non-incumbent running for City Council. I soon met with him in person, and found him to be incredibly engaging and passionate. In the aftermath of September 11th, Mr. Singh was one of the leading Sikhs spreading a message of tolerance and raising awareness, running workshops at schools, police stations and synagogues. Mr. Singh constantly and accurately stresses that he is not a career politician, and though he occasionally will lapse into political incorrectness, he is bursting with integrity, and is deeply concerned with the issues facing his neighbors and would-be constituents. His full bio is here:
Mr. Singh would be the first South Asian elected to New York City or New York State elected office. That is startling, given that New York City houses a quarter of American South Asians, several hundred thousand legal immigrants and citizens. Watching Mr. Singh engage the local South Asian community at events in the Bellarose area was inspiring, as the district has never had a serious candidate of South Asian origin.
Mr. Singh’s race and personality would not be enough to merit full support for him, but his stand against the local Democratic machine seals the deal. Singh is running against the Weprin family. The local political club is named for Saul Weprin, the incumbent councilman’s (David Weprin) father. David Weprin is now running for Comptroller, and his brother, Assemblyman Mark Weprin, is running to replace them. Should David lose his race for Comptroller, he will presumably run for Mark’s Assembly seat. This is the kind of gross family politics that even the Kennedys can’t get away with anymore. If the Weprins were progressive, that would help, but since they are not, its all the more reason to support Mr. Singh.
“I’m not Barack Obama,” Mr. Singh concedes. “But this would still be historic.”

Evan Thies- City Council
Brooklyn (33rd Council District): Brooklyn Heights, Greenpoint; parts of Williamsburg, Park Slope, Boerum Hill
Incumbent: David Yassky, running for Comptroller
I had the privilege of meeting Thies early during this campaign cycle, and was immediately convinced that he would be an excellent fit for this district, both respecting the needs of the longstanding community, and welcoming the hipster crowd that has brought a lot to these neighborhoods. His main claim to fame is serving as Chief of Staff to incumbent David Yassky, which only gets you so many points. As indicated by his lack of a Yassky endorsement, however, Thies is very much his own man.
Thies is a tireless policy wonk, something needed in a City Council full of blow-hards. He knows the issues inside out, and is brimming with ideas to introduce in the Council, including much needed election and ethics reforms. Thies is not exactly an electrifying personality, but in this quirky Williamsburg district, his sanity was refreshing during the debate I attended. While running for office is inherently an exercise in vanity, this is particularly true in the 33rd District, where four of his opponents are either ornery old men or slightly (to significantly) off their rockers. A fifth, Steve Levin, is a pawn of Brooklyn political boss, Vito Lopez. See the always excellent Tom Robbins article on Williamsburg/Bushwick politics here: The final candidate, Joanne Simon, is a perfectly fine disabilities rights lawyer from Park Slope. However, Thies is more attuned to issues in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, which is undergoing rapid and important change. He is also, at the risk of sounding agist, younger and more in tune with the changing electorate itself. We need competent, fresh blood in City Hall.

Josh Skaller- City Council
Brooklyn (39th Council District): Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Street, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Boro Park.
Incumbent: Bill DeBlasio, running for Public Advocate
This is the kind of districts that progressives dream about, a mega-liberal bastion within the generally liberal Brooklyn political community. Such a community deserves someone who will unapologetically stand up to corporate interests, and that candidate is Josh Skaller. Skaller recently served as president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, one of the strongest progressive political clubs in the city, and has been involved in a number of grassroots campaigns in the area.
I canvassed with him twice, and two things about him stood out. First, he is a genuinely great guy. No sleaze, no fake smiles. You will never wake up to news about him being caught in a corruption scandal. Second, his strident anti-developer beliefs are sorely needed in the City Council. Developers provide tons of money to campaigns, including liberal Democratic campaigns, and thus exert enormous influence in shaping city policy. Skaller will not let them run rampant in Park Slope, and hopefully, will stand up to them throughout the city. Finally, Skaller has been endorsed by Norman Siegel, who makes very few such endorsements.
A former councilmember, Steve DeBrienza, and Brad Lander are Skaller’s two major opponents.

Diana Reyna- City Council (Incumbent)
Brooklyn (34th Council District): Williamsburg and Bushwick, Brooklyn; Ridgewood, Queens.
Reyna is a good councilperson under attack from the Brooklyn political machine. I’ll direct you to the same article that I linked to for Thies above. Reyna is by no means perfect, but she is a good fit for the district, and is worthy of another term. She has appeared engaged in local concerns, and her politics are good, particularly her work on affordable housing. She has the capacity to handle a district undergoing significant change. Additionally, her opponent is worrisome.
Among progressives in Brooklyn, it is essential to recognize that Brooklyn will always be a Democratic county, which makes machine politics more dangerous. Plus, as we all know, not all Democrats are created equal. Those in the legal profession should be particularly concerned with the Kings County machine’s approach to boosting under qualified judges as political patronage. Reyna’s main opponent, Maritza Davila, is another Vito Lopez protege, and a director at a non-profit that Lopez has been funneling money through both legitimate and more questionable purposes for years. See article: .

John Liu- Comptroller: All registered New York Democrats can vote in this election.
This is an eminently boring race, so don’t worry if you’ve tuned out. The Comptroller invests the City’s massive pension funds, an audits city agencies. It’s an important position that requires hard work, but also the ability to make yourself relevant to city government, something Bill Thompson, the incumbent failed to do. I support John Liu largely by process of elimination after watching a listless debate a few months ago. Melinda Katz, a former Republican, should not hold city-wide office in New York. David Weprin is a little too pro-Wall Street for my tastes, based on his conduct at the debate. David Yassky is an ever-calculating pol who will probably do the job competently, but he does little to inspire. Experience is a wash, all four of these candidates have roughly equivalent qualifications for the office.
Liu was originally running for Public Advocate, a race in which I would not have supported him. He is a bit of a grand-stander, and is a typical New York politician who would rather be seen than get things done. A recent flap with his mother over whether he worked in a sweatshop as a child has been embarrassing. However, Liu also made history as becoming the first Asian-American elected to office in New York when he became City Councilperson in 2001. Today there are several districts where Asian-Americans have a shot. His politics are good, and he is both relentlessly energetic and optimistic. His clamor for attention will be helpful under a Bloomberg mayoralty that is so good at drowning out dissent. Finally, Liu is simply a likeable guy. If he can use his personality to bring some attention to the role of the Comptroller in running a city and holding the Mayor’s office accountable, that will be a win in itself.


Manhattan District Attorney: All Democrats registered in Manhattan are eligible to vote in this race.
Candidates: Richard Aborn, Leslie Crocker-Snyder, Cy Vance
People shouldn’t make endorsements unless they feel strongly about a race, an intuitive but often violated political principle. I studied the Manhattan District Attorney’s race pretty closely, and though I will probably cast my vote for Richard Aborn, it is not without some hesitation. Of the three candidates, I am most opposed to Leslie Crocker Snyder. She has an impressive resume as a former prosecutor under Morganthau, and is something of a trailblazer as female prosecutors go. But she is also vigorously “tough on crime”, using that playbook against Morganthau in the 2005 DA race, which of course she lost. There are few things that annoy me more than scoring cheap political points at the expense of the criminal justice system, which is already heavily skewed against defendants. One particularly tasteless episode featured an “endorsement” from the victim of a heinous crime who claimed that Snyder would more vigorously pursue justice than Morganthau had been, as if the current Manhattan DA’s office were weak-kneed on crime issues. I have also seen Snyder up close during a panel discussion, which has only reinforced my impression that she lacks the compassion to wield so much power in the New York criminal justice system.
In contrast, both Cy Vance and Richard Aborn speak at great lengths of the need to focus on alternative sentencing, rehabilitation, and prevention, rather than punishment. Aborn is unapologetically to the left of Vance on some of these issues, and if you are voting purely on ideology, Aborn is your guy. What bothers me about Aborn is not his politics, but his qualifications. Though he was an Assistant District Attorney many years ago, his main claim to fame is being a leading advocate for the Brady Bill. Taking credit for an anti-gun bill that passed last century (1993) might mean something if you’re running for Congress, but it has limited utility in a District Attorney’s race. As Norman Siegel likes to point out, different jobs require different skill sets. Nothing in Aborn’s background makes me think he can run the massive operation that is the Manhattan DA’s office, though to his credit he has stayed involved in criminal justice issues as a consultant for various candidates and agencies. One need only go to his website and check out his endorsements to get a sense of how much better the DA’s office would be if Aborn ran it. My question is, can he run it?
Cy Vance is a completely different animal. This guy is pure political pedigree, the son of Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cy Vance. I volunteered at a fundraiser for him at a fancy hotel in Union Square. The guest list was a whos-who of aristocratic New York families, including the Morganthaus. Vance’s politics are perfect for the Manhattan electorate, particularly the elite electorate- moderately progressive policies and tempered rhetoric, behind a clean cut handsome face. He is no threat to the status quo- he is the status quo, which in New York fortunately allows him to talk about the poor and the misguided war on drugs without being labeled a radical or a socialist. He is the most likely of the three candidates to run his office exactly as Morganthau does- so if you’re happy with the way things are, vote Vance. He is not as progressive as Aborn, however. His anointment is also jarring- Vance had lived in Seattle for 16 years before moving back to the city to run for this office. Cy Jones or Cy Smith could never run for DA if they had spent the majority of their careers three thousand miles away. If political nepotism makes you uncomfortable, Vance is not your choice. There is little doubt that he will keep the trains running on time, however- he’ll have the right people holding his hand to see to that.